I’m approaching the two year anniversary of my husband’s death. I’ve had people ask how I’m doing, which I appreciate, particularly given the fact that as a culture, grief is brief and the expectation to return to “normal” is, like most unnamed and powerful forces: difficult to resist. Giving into cultural norms means we forget about grief anniversaries. Or, perhaps, we are, simply, like life, moving forward.
There is an all too familiar emotional edge to the “how are you doing” question. When asked, I want to pry into the inquirer’s head see what they are referencing. I suspect that it’s focused on the sadness me or my children feel because we miss their dad. Do they picture the three of us huddled together, watching old videos of our family, holding one another as tears roll down our face? To be fair, that does happen, but it’s rare. If we do watch videos these days, it’s more nostalgic than raw. That, or we’ve acquired emotional calluses.
Where grief rears its head for me is in an inability to deal with balancing the day to dayness of life-- which, up until only a week or so ago--felt mostly manageable. And, the anxiety is palpable. I forget to breathe, I snap quickly and I spend a lot of energy (I don’t have) keeping my face from turning into the bitter scowl of a single working mother who is bothered too much by children who can’t remember to put their shoes in the shoe bin near the front door.
When the anxiety builds, I would like to hear something like, “you know, everyone understands you can’t get to every email” or “kids can sleep in their clothes a few nights a week” rather than “how are you doing?” - a question I don’t have an answer for. A few months into my single parent voyage, I texted a friend attempting to articulate the insurmountable obstacle of dirty dishes. She suggested I name Tuesdays and Wednesdays paper plate days. The suggestion was a much needed salve on an open, festering domestic wound. So simple and yet so brilliant. The truth is, the kids and I are fine on a macro level. But, day to day we are still starting fresh and the moment to moment energy it takes to recreate new lives and new identities is remarkably exhausting. Yet, it’s so common, I forget the toll it takes until the stress forces me to face it and make adjustments.
A while ago, a friend emailed me asking me what she could do to help a friend who recently lost her husband. She felt helpless and uncertain. My suggestion was to share those feelings because chances were her friend was feeling the same way. One of the things I resent most about losing a spouse (other than losing a spouse) is the ongoing tension between working to still relate to my friends and knowing I’ll always be a little different. For example, I have attempted to relate to my married, mom friends by sharing how nice it is that I don’t have anyone to blame but myself when things don’t get done- that there’s only three of us to clean up after rather than four. There is some truth to that; Ed would allow piles of papers to stack up and it would drive me crazy. There are still piles, but they are smaller and the only person to nag is me. He also did all the grocery shopping and the cooking and the kitchen clean up. And he could kick the soccer ball in the backyard with our son while I painted with our daughter at the kitchen table.
I wonder if the women I talk with are trying to relate to me the way I am trying to relate to them: they express frustration over husbands who work all the time or take months to address one item on the honey-do list as a way to say it’s just as hard to have a husband as it is to not have one. It’s our feminine attempt to say, “look, me too” in the midst of knowing only one of us could really understand what it’s like to not have a husband. I wonder if they return to their private lives, like I do mine, reflecting that the stories we shared are half-truths. I like to think that while I am thinking about how lucky I was to have a husband who was a domestic God-send, they are soaking in the cherished presence of masculine energy still in their lives.
The times I feel genuinely comforted and not isolated are rare - but they come in moments when they are most needed and when the other person is honest about their own grief and the confusion that comes with grief. Or even in revealing-explicitly or implicitly--that things have in fact changed between us but there’s still a commitment to the friendship, whatever path it may take.
Reese has been drawing pictures of me lately. For the last week, she has brought home a picture a day and they have the same look: me on the left, a door on the right. Being the metaphor chasing, English major, mystic, I immediately began thinking about what the door symbolized. Was it open? Was it closed? What does that mean? Why was she equating me with the door? Our front door was recently fixed by the guys working on the upstairs (transforming it into my bedroom suite/sanctuary). Maybe she just appreciates that the door opens and closes easily and that I’m not wrestling with the deadbolt for an extra five seconds in the morning when we’re trying to get out the door. Turns out her drawing is as simple and comforting as the recent fix. The other day, the new nanny mentioned to me that Reese told her that her favorite time of the day was when I walk through the door. Jack apparently overheard this, because when I was in the middle of questioning the true meaning of the door he looked at me and said plainly, “it’s a picture of Reese’s favorite time of day.” Duh.
So, anticipating two years is full of questions and complications; it’s about negotiating old and new relationships and cultivating new identities. But, also, thank God, it’s about just being and shutting the brain off, seeing plainly what’s right in front of us--without judgment or worry--and sometimes, being pleasantly enraptured by what’s there.